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Heather Lunt moves forward from addiction to recovery

After a warmer than usual fall, the cold bites. The recent time change means the 6 a.m. circle is going to be in the dark. But the workers, 20 or so, come. They come in carpools and on foot, and they gather around a small fire pit in the MaineWorks parking lot off Forest Avenue in the middle of Portland. Except for Margo Walsh, the business founder and owner, Joanne Arnold, spiritual mentor and baked goods provider, and Heather Lunt, the group is all men.

The conversation around the circle is about safety equipment for the day, warm clothes, food and water, and housing. One of the men has been sober but is couch surfing. He cites a lost phone as the reason he hasn’t claimed a bed in a local sober house. This is unacceptable to Walsh. “You need to tell him,” Walsh instructs her operations manager after the circle. “He either finds a bed in a sober house by tonight or he takes a 10-panel test tomorrow.” The test will screen for cocaine, heroin, meth, marijuana, PCP and five prescription drugs.

Workers gather around Margo Walsh, the business founder and owner of MaineWorks, during 6 a.m. circle. Photo by Joanne Arnold

The circle conversation turns to an evening event that everyone has been asked to attend at Day One, a program for teen substance use prevention and treatment in Maine. MaineWorks is getting an award and this is a chance for the workers, in their 20s and 30s, to speak with teens. “What would you tell your 16- or 17-year-old self?” Walsh asks the circle. Most agree that there was little their teen-self, full of bravado and indestructible, would have listened to.

Heather Lunt agrees.

Addiction can start early. Her first drink was as an 11-year-old. She took sips of her mother’s sweet, milkshake-like, premade mudslides in single serving bottles and liked the effect. “It made me more of what I wanted to be—more outgoing, more talkative.” Everyone saw her as fun. “But,” she says, “no one wanted to hang out.”

Addiction is loneliness. She found her connection and validation with older alcoholics. They became her community and provided her with a place to stay. By 13, her drinking led her to a 23-year-old boyfriend. By 17, her mother kicked her out of their home. By 19, she was pregnant and stopped drinking for a while, but a back injury resulted in a prescription for 272 30-milligram pills of oxycodone. She told the physician she drank, but didn’t tell him she was an alcoholic because she didn’t think she was one. Her 20s were a clichéd slippery slope from prescription pills to crack to heroin.

“At one point, I actually thought that shooting coke would be better than smoking crack because there’d be no second-hand smoke for my kids, but I couldn’t see that it would be a lot worse if they found me dead in the next room.”

Addiction is work. In order to procure and pay for the next drink, she spent most of the day in the structure of addiction. “I was always planning and thinking where the next high would come from and who I’d need to manipulate or rip off,” Lunt says. As a young teen, she stole from her mother and had random sexual partners who she now realizes were pedophiles. “A heroin addict is the most motivated person in the world,” says Walsh.

Addiction and logic do not exist together. “Addiction makes it feel like you have to use to survive. Your life, your kids don’t matter. People who don’t understand think that you make a choice to use over [caring for] your kids, but it feels like there’s no choice at all,” says Lunt. “At one point, I actually thought that shooting coke would be better than smoking crack because there’d be no second-hand smoke for my kids, but I couldn’t see that it would be a lot worse if they found me dead in the next room.”

Addiction is hard to understand. “Take your phone,” says Walsh, “and put it in the middle of the table. If it dings, don’t pick it up. If it rings, don’t pick it up. If it buzzes, don’t pick it up. That feeling of tightness and urgency you have in your body, that’s addiction. Imagine feeling that way—all the time.”

“I’m a violent drunk,” Lunt says. Assault was the primary reason for her arrests and jail sentences. Each time she got out, she’d start the work of addiction again. When her probation officer suggested keeping her out of trouble by keeping her in jail, she off-handedly agreed. Now, Lunt sees this as her turning point. “As I met people with strong recovery, things started to feel more stable, and I started to feel more capable of making things work. Looking for a job felt so overwhelming. I’m a felon, I look horrible on paper—who would hire me?”

Walsh and MaineWorks did. MaineWorks is a for-profit temporary staffing construction and landscaping company that provides authentic, recovery-based employment. Many employers won’t hire someone with a history of jail and substance abuse. Walsh, a recovering alcoholic, has a mission to “dignify the transitional employment time for young people in recovery and reentry from substance abuse disorder.”

Generally, the construction and landscaping jobs are temporary—a three to 12-month stop on the way to more permanent positions elsewhere. But some employees have ended up working for MaineWorks full time, including members of the leadership team. “I don’t want them to return by default, but because they choose MaineWorks,” says Walsh.

Lunt, like many new MaineWorks workers, started with demolition jobs and construction cleaning. “I thought, I can do that stuff,” she says. “I can do anything I’m taught.” She was often the only woman on the jobsite and sometimes felt that she had to prove herself. Soon she moved on to landscaping. The men who were her co-workers became her friends and her support. “At MaineWorks, you stand shoulder to shoulder in circle, starting every day together. It’s like a hug. It doesn’t matter where you come from, if you’re part of the MaineWorks crew you’re family.”

Anything and everything can derail the work of recovery. The lack of money for gas or car repairs might cause a person to miss an AA meeting, which means that person won’t meet the requirement for their sober house and might not have a place to live. Some women in recovery have the added responsibility of children. A trip to DHHS often requires an entire day of waiting and missed wages and usually ends not with benefits received, but with another appointment at DHHS. In addition, if a recovering addict has landed a job, income guidelines for state and federally sponsored childcare often penalize women when they start to make a living wage or marry. “A single mom is definitely better off at DHHS,” Lunt explains.

“My children are my main motivation, but now I know I owe it to myself to get sober.
I’m worth it.

MaineWorks and its nonprofit arm Maine Recovery understand that the problems facing a recovering addict require immediate solutions. If a person has to wait for a place to live, a heavy jacket, a phone or a meal, those problems snowball and become overwhelming—another reason to find the next high. “In many cases, substance abuse starts at 16, 17, 20 years old,” says Walsh, “and so those are really important developmental years for young [people] and they’ve never really developed their executive functions and reasoning…MaineWorks is committed to wraparound services.”

Lunt agrees. “You come to [MaineWorks] battered and broken, they embrace you and they say, ‘Come here, I’m going to teach you.’ ”

Heather Lunt did move forward. After many false starts, she met people serious about recovery, found a place at a sober house, and soon became the house manager responsible for 12 other women. She tests their sobriety and makes sure they do their chores. “If you can’t take accountability for cleaning your room or making your bed, how can you take accountability for the other parts of your life,” she says. She also makes sure the residents have a recovery sponsor, attend meetings and recovery activities and work on their 12-step programs. She hopes to someday work in a treatment center with adolescents and looks forward to pursuing the education to get there.

Portland provides Lunt with more access to meetings and other resources, so her three children stay 30 minutes away with her mother. They see each other on weekends and talk or video chat every night. “My children are my main motivation, but now I know I owe it to myself to get sober. I’m worth it.”

Even as she gains the tools to move forward in her 30s, Lunt is experiencing setbacks. She hurt her wrist and was unable to continue the labor-intensive work at MaineWorks. Then last March, when she thought her 7-year-old daughter was resting and recovering from pneumonia, it turned out that she was suffering from leukemia. Symptoms of fatigue and a lack of appetite are often mistaken for a cold or the flu in these cases.

Heather Lunt draws in the sand with her daughter, who was diagnosed with leukemia last March. Photo by Joanne Arnold

At the Barbara Bush Children’s Hospital, Lunt spent nights sleeping with and comforting her daughter and, like all parents who have to care for a profoundly sick child, getting a crash course in medicine. In this case: hematology and oncology. Frequent and erratic appointments for blood transfusions and chemotherapy made it impossible for Lunt to work a regular job. Now, eight months later, her daughter is improving and they both look forward to more manageable monthly appointments.

Walsh calls Lunt a “pioneering woman,” but Lunt is quick to thank Walsh. “She’s always saying, ‘what can we do in this moment to help you move forward?’ When my daughter got sick, Margo helped me with rent, food, even a cup of coffee when I needed it most.” It’s that little break, and a belief that someone can succeed, that can make the difference between addiction and recovery. “Addiction is loneliness. Recovery is connectedness,” Walsh says.

Back at the circle in the MaineWorks parking lot, another worker raises his hand. He says that he’d tell his 16-year-old self to always have hope and never give up. No matter what life throws at her, through her strength and tenacity, that’s just what Heather Lunt is doing.

Anna E. Jordan (annaejordan.com) is a writer and rowing coach currently working as Editor and Special Project Coordinator at Islandport Press in Yarmouth, Maine. Follow her @annawritedraw for news about #kidlit, rowing and politics.

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